Franklin warns that more research is needed to support the results of stem cell therapy. “There is no evidence that [stem cell therapy] is any more beneficial than other treatments that are less invasive and less expensive.” Among these treatments are injections of hyaluronic acid, steroids or PRP. And, says Voynick, “Stem cell therapy should not be used in patients with infections or cancer. Stem cells target inflammation and can exacerbate disease in these cases.”
The process itself is relatively straightforward. Stem cells are either embryonic or somatic (adult), the latter of which can be retrieved from bone marrow or adipose tissue (fat). Due to the ease of collection, fat is usually the source of stem cells for use in companion animals. Fat-derived stem cells do not need to be cultured and can, therefore, be sent for processing and returned in as little as 48 hours.
Harvesting the fat is much less invasive than a spay. It is commonly taken from the shoulder, lumbar region or falciform ligament (a fatty ligament attaching the liver to the body wall). The 20-minute surgery is performed under general anesthesia and the fat is then sent to a laboratory, where it yields a product called stromal vascular fraction (SVF).
Once the SVF is in hand, the veterinarian will sedate the dog and inject SVF into the affected joint(s); it may also be injected into the bloodstream intravenously. Any remaining SVF is usually stored for future treatments. Although as with any surgery, there is risk when undergoing anesthesia to harvest the fat tissue, stem cell therapy is generally very safe. And, since SVF is derived from the dog’s own cells, the rate of immune reactions is extremely low.
Treatment with stem cell therapy isn’t easy on the wallet, however. Surgery, processing and the initial injection can range between $2,000 and $3,000, close to the cost of some surgical treatments. There are also no guarantees, and surgery may still be required if stem cell therapy fails. As Franklin, who recommends a case-by-case assessment on the value of stem cell therapy to an individual dog, notes, “It’s all about pros and cons—[deciding] what will be best for the patient.”